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The ascent of Barbara Pym   

A chronicler of the overlooked, she has at last got her just literary deserts

Artillery Row

It’s cheering to see the English novelist Barbara Pym having yet another renaissance. The feminist press Virago has just reissued nine of her mid-twentieth-century novels in its ‘Virago Modern Classics’ series, with striking new cover designs in zingy colours and blurbs by Richard Osman and Anne Tyler. Pym’s second novel Excellent Women, first published in the year that that Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, topped The Times critics’ list of the best novels of the last seventy years. ‘There’s probably no more perfect comedy in the English language,’ Claire Allfree writes.

Many readers are rediscovering the ‘perennially under-read’ Pym this Jubilee year thanks to Paula Byrne’s picaresque biography The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, newly published in paperback. The first half of Byrne’s lively and enjoyable book traces Barbara Pym’s journey from her beginnings as a gangly ‘Shropshire lass’ to becoming an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1930s, followed by wartime work in the Censorship Office and as a Wren in Naples. Byrne is good on Barbara Pym’s early literary promise and her disastrous entanglements with a series of unsuitable men, including a protracted holiday romance with a German S.S. officer in the late 1930s. 

Philip Larkin wrote her a fan letter in 1961

But Pym’s lifelong love affair was with her writing, and after the war she showed a dogged determination to establish herself as an author. She was just 21 when she wrote the first draft of a gentle comic novel about two middle-aged unmarried sisters called Belinda and Harriet (based on imaginary older versions of herself and her sister Hilary) happily living together in a pre-war English country village and darning socks for the local clergy. Some Tame Gazelle was eventually published in 1950, when Pym was almost 37; by then she had wisely omitted the Nazi references of earlier drafts, and sensible, tweedy Belinda now pins a seed-pearl brooch to her dress instead of a miniature swastika. 

Her second novel, Excellent Women, was published in 1952 and many consider it to be Barbara Pym’s masterpiece. Based on her own experience of life as a single woman in austere post-war London, where she worked as an editorial assistant at the International African Institute and rented a flat with her sister Hilary, it is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, who works for the ‘Society for the Care of Aged Gentlewomen’. Like the Pym sisters, she lives in rooms ‘without every convenience’ in Pimlico: ‘“I have to share a bathroom,” I had so often murmured, almost with shame, as if I personally had been found unworthy of a bathroom of my own.’

Mildred’s matter-of-fact acceptance of her lot in life is a sprightly riposte to Virginia Woolf. One of the many ‘splendid’ women who remained unmarried after the war, Mildred is taken for granted by the other characters but never loses her ironic good spirits, sorting out their marital problems as efficiently as she organises the church jumble sale. 

Excellent Women was described by Betjeman in 1952 as ‘a perfect book’, and other critics agreed. ‘We needn’t bring Jane Austen into it,’ wrote the News Chronicle approvingly, ‘but Miss Pym is writing in a great tradition and knows it.’ During the 1950s and early 1960s a new Pym novel appeared every two years or so, including A Glass of Blessings (1958) and No Fond Return Of Love (1961), all well reviewed. Philip Larkin wrote her a fan letter in 1961, beginning a warm epistolary friendship that would last for the rest of Pym’s life. Although he was an atheist and she a devout Anglican, they shared a love of what others dismissed as ‘commonplace’ and the many letters they exchanged for almost twenty-five years are funny and charming. 

Barbara Pym has now entered her own ‘imperial phase’ as a novelist

Like Austen, Pym published six much-loved novels, but in 1963 her writing career appeared to come an abrupt end after she submitted the manuscript of what would have been her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, to her long-standing publisher Jonathan Cape. Cape’s ambitious new editor Tom Maschler turned it down flat without even reading it, convinced that Pym’s novels belonged to an England that was fast disappearing. As Larkin’s poem ‘Annus mirabilis’ describes, 1963 heralded a new era of Beatles music and unexpurgated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover; compared to this, Pym’s gentle social comedies of can-do spinsters, pompous clergymen and afternoon teas seemed old hat. Most of her loyal readers belonged to commercial circulating libraries at Smith’s and Boots, where books that were too expensive to buy could be rented out for a small fee; the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964 meant that, one by one, these subscription libraries were closing, resulting in a dramatic fall in Pym’s readership.

Pym was devastated to be ‘off-loaded’ by her publisher as cruelly as she had been by many of her lovers, but she was made of strong stuff and refused to give up. All through the 1960s and early 1970s she kept revising different manuscripts and sending them out to over twenty publishers, all without success. Outraged on her behalf, Philip Larkin took up her cause with his own publishers, Faber. ‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail, which is a joy,’ he told Charles Monteith, and he offered to write an introduction to her next novel for free. None of it made any difference. Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings became a bestseller, while Pym’s novels remained unpublished. ‘What is the future for my kind of writing?’ she wrote in her notebook.

After sixteen years in the wilderness, her literary comeback was dizzying in its speed. It began in January 1977, when the Times Literary Supplement asked contributors to name the most over- and under-rated authors of the past seventy-five years. Barbara Pym was the only living author to be nominated twice in the under-rated category, by both Larkin and Lord David Cecil, a literary professor at Oxford. The story ran on the front page of The Times the following morning, and Pym became a celebrity with appearances on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, newspaper features, and a BBC film called ‘Tea with Miss Pym’ in which she was interviewed by Lord Cecil in her cottage garden. 

Pym’s personal ‘annus mirabilis’ coincided with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations that year. Macmillan published her novel, A Quartet in Autumn, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize chaired by Larkin a few months later. 1978 saw the publication of Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died and a guest appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’. She finished drafting her final novel, A Few Green Leaves, and gave a talk for Radio 3 called ‘Finding A Voice’. By now aware that her cancer had returned, her thoughts turned to the legacy she wanted most as a novelist: for her writing to be instantly recognizable. ‘I think that’s the kind of immortality most authors would want’, she said. ‘But of course, it’s a lot to ask for.’ 

With nine novels newly reissued and A Quartet in Autumn available as a Picador Classic, it seems that Barbara Pym has now entered her own ‘imperial phase’ as a novelist. Everything she touched seems to be publishing gold; well, almost everything. The new batch of Virago Modern Classics includes unfinished works such as Crampton Hodnet (Pym herself decided it was too outdated to publish and kept it in her linen cupboard) while one of her last novels remains out of print. ‘I feel it is one of the best I have ever done’, she said, but currently The Sweet Dove Died is only available secondhand, as a digital copy, or in a library. 

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